The biography begins with Marie Curie’s birth in 1867, in Warsaw. Poland has been dominated by the Russian Empire for over 100 years, and young Marie witnesses the czar’s continual attempts to Russianize Poland. As a youth, she is traumatized by the political execution of her friend’s brother, and she is personally humiliated and frightened by a government inspector’s interrogations. The political situation causes family hardship when her father, M. Sklodovski, is demoted, resulting in a reduction of salary and a loss of title and housing.
Marie remains loyal to Poland. As a young adult, she participates in an illegal “Floating University,” a Polish school that operates outside the Russian system, and she later risks arrest by creating a school for peasant children in the village of Szczuki. As an adult, Marie plans to return to Poland to teach but decides to marry the Frenchman Pierre Curie instead. She remains dedicated to Poland, however, and names the first new element she discovers “polonium.” One of the highlights of her life occurs when she establishes the Radium Institute Center for Scientific Research in Warsaw in 1925.
Marie Curie lives during the late 19nth and early 20th centuries, when women do not have the same educational opportunities as men. Because women are not allowed to attend the University of Warsaw, Marie exhibits great determination and effort in pursuing her scientific studies. After struggling to save enough money, she moves to Paris, where she receives master’s degrees in physics and mathematics from the Sorbonne University and becomes the first woman to receive a doctorate of physical science from the University of Paris.
Marie also becomes the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics (1903) and the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry (1911). But France is slow to honor the Curies’ work and does not provide them with adequate laboratory space or equipment, or offer official rights, rank, and salary to Marie until November 1904. This was not unusual treatment for French women at the time. Although many French women worked outside the home, most did not hold positions of great responsibility. Women’s salaries were much lower than men’s, and the law required wives to turn their wages over to their husbands.
Madame Curie takes place during a time of extensive scientific advancement, with great scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Louis Pasteur discovering new laws and questioning existing knowledge. These scientists support one another with their ideas, and many are not overly concerned with competition or financial reward. Under this system of free exchange of information, it is not surprising that significant scientific progress is made or that the Curies do not demand exclusive rights to their discoveries.
The onset of World War I plays an important role in Marie Curie’s life. Unable to continue her research and eager to serve her adopted country, Marie creates “radiological cars,” oversees the installation of x-ray equipment in hospitals, and trains 150 technicians to provide x-ray services for the wounded. She also invests the money from her second Nobel Prize in war loans that are never repaid. Following the war, Marie works with the League of Nations on the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation and is active in the cause of disarmament and peace.